Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is the ‘epitome’ of NBA’s modern big men

Watch Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets visit the Philadelphia 76ers live from 8pm Saturday on Sky Sports Mix and Arena.

By Cameron Hogwood

Nikola Jokic fed early MVP buzz again on Thursday night as he went toe-to-toe with fellow European marvel Luka Doncic in an overtime thriller between the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks.

With the Nuggets trailing by two late in the fourth quarter, Jokic dropped in the most casual and yet cold-blooded of buzzer-beaters over Willie Cauley-Stein to cap a 17-point fourth quarter and send the game beyond regulation time.

The Serbian matched Doncic’s 38 points on the night in the eventual 124-117 defeat, as well as contributing 11 rebounds and four assists to continue his sparkling start to the campaign.

He has posted fewer than 24 points in just three of eight outings so far this season and enters Saturday’s match-up with the Philadelphia 76ers averaging 25.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 10.9 assists.

“At this point, what more can I say about him?” said his Nuggets team-mate Will Barton earlier this week. “I tell him before every game, ‘Just go out there and win MVP. You could be the best player in the world if you want to.’

“It’s all up to him. He just can’t be stopped. He’s one of those players, with his shooting touch, his post moves, ability to put the ball on the floor, then pass. It’s nothing that you can do to stop him. When he’s aggressive, it’s over with. Right now, he’s just putting it together. It’s great to watch. We need him to be this guy.”

The 25-year-old has asserted himself as a beacon of the NBA’s modern-day big, matching vertical dominance and touch at the rim with the ability to drain shots outside and deliver from the free throw line, the latter of which he has gone 43 of 54 from through the opening eight games.

He also carries the natural size and power of a traditional center that makes for easy buckets when deployed in unison with the talented Jamal Murray.

“How can I get better? I mean, I think it’s just by experience,” said Jokic. “My body’s getting a little bit kind of used to that situation, like all the contact, all the physicality of the huff, the game is fast.

“Just by experience, I think. I learned a lot from the last playoffs. Kind of growing up. Individual-wise, I mean shooting better, be aggressive. But I just think, experience is going to be the most important key.”

His arsenal on the court is meanwhile glossed by the kind of vision rarely seen from a center, with team-mate JaMychal Green going as far as admitting he is “sometimes too unselfish”.

Jokic has dished out 87 assists this season having put together a run of six games with no fewer than 10, including a career-best 18 in December’s win over the Houston Rockets.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid is a similar representation of how the league’s ‘big man’ has developed. He has threatened early signs of flourishing under Doc Rivers amid the Sixers’ 7-1 start to the year, averaging 24.6 points, 11.8 rebounds but just 3.3 assists per game. He will be missing on Saturday night after being ruled out through injury alongside Ben Simmons.

Such is Jokic’s impact as a creator that his closest rival when it comes to assists among centers is the Detroit Pistons’ Mason Plumlee with 3.6 per game.

“I think we’re going to get a look at two big men that are the epitome of the evolution of big men,” said Sky Sports NBA analyst Ovie Soko.

“We’ve seen how the game is now being played out to the three-point line and these are two big men who are able to extend their game out to the three. They can play inside/outside, they can create for everybody around them.

“I don’t know how many big men we’ve been able to see that have the vision that Jokic has. That is something that is extremely amazing. We just saw him earlier on this year, I think he had 18 assists which was absolutely huge.

“These are two teams that obviously have a lot of expectation. They’re both expected to be playoff teams and they both I’m sure have high hopes to make their own runs once they get to the playoffs so this will be a good matchup and a good test for both teams.”

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